Peter Smith – Associated Press
The rites before Easter are the same. Solemn processions of Good Friday. Blessing of Holy Saturday is a meal that was avoided during Lent. Liturgies accompanied by processions, bells and singing.
But while Easter is the holiest of the holy days in the church calendar, which marks the day when Christians believe that Jesus overcame death, many members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States find it difficult to rejoice during the war
According to the Ukrainian government, many are in regular contact with relatives or friends who are suffering from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has devastated cities and claimed thousands of civilian lives.
“This is a very wonderful Easter for us,” said Rev. Richard Gendras, a priest at the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Mary in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “It should be a joyous holiday, and it’s all about a new life, and yet here we face the harbingers of murder and murder, genocide and death.”
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Many believers “walk like zombies,” he said. “Right now we’re going through Easter because that’s what we have to hold on to.”
Orysia Hermak, a member of St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in New York, says the news of the war evokes bad memories: she was born in an IDP camp after her mother fled Ukraine after World War II, she said.
“Easter is such a joyous event, but it emphasizes everything,” she said. “It’s surreal.”
Both cathedrals are part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States, whose parishes have many people who have recent or ancestral ties to the old country.
Most Catholics and Protestants celebrated Easter last Sunday, but Orthodox celebrate this Sunday. Usually they do this later than the western churches because they use a different method of calculating the date of the holy day, which they call Easter. Some Ukrainian Catholics, especially in Ukraine itself, also celebrate this Sunday.
Easter will be celebrated on both sides of the battle lines. Eastern Orthodoxy is the dominant religion in Ukraine and Russia, as well as in several neighboring lands. The split among Ukrainian Orthodox – one group claiming independence and the other historically loyal to the Moscow patriarch – has erupted around the world amid competing claims to legitimacy. But the two main Orthodox organizations in Ukraine fiercely opposed the Russian invasion.
In the United States, many people with ties to Ukraine are closely monitoring the war and channeling funds to individuals and relief groups, said Andrew Fesac, president of the St. Vladimir Board of Trustees.
While the Orthodox in America can celebrate freely, “our relatives and friends in Ukraine are under pressure from an army of invaders and are not as free to celebrate as they would like,” Fesak said. “They may not be able to get to churches. They may not be able to walk around the city the way they want to. They may not be able to eat traditional dishes that they could eat at Easter.”
And yet he admires the strength of the Ukrainian resistance.
“The population of Ukraine has shown that it is very committed to preserving Ukraine’s independence,” he said. “It’s at least a strong consolation for us to see that there is such a strong civic pride and sense of patriotism.”
Rev. John Harest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Peter and Paul in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, said it was important to perform historical rituals even in dark times – in part to challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin, who started the war, by saying that Ukraine has no historical legitimacy other than Russia. Ukrainians say it is a separate but related group of people, with their own language and traditions.
Although believers in the United States may have a “sense of guilt for survivors,” they are bound to continue traditions that are under such threat in Ukraine, Charest said.
“We need to be strong now and we need to celebrate this holiday,” he said. “If we don’t celebrate our traditions, that’s exactly what Putin wants.”
Gendras said the holy day offers an eternal message: “We must look at the evil before us and say ‘no,’ good wins and will always win.”
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